Key Points from “The Elements of Style” by Strunk

– William Strunk Jr., Richard de A’Morelli

Good writing is a skill that is useful in many occupations, in his classic book written first in 1918, Strunk offers plenty of tips in writing that could improve the readability and conciseness of a text. Below are highlights I store for myself, as a reference for my work from time to time. Hope it is useful to you too.

Author George Orwell offered some poignant advice on grammar and style to writers in his discourse on Politics and the English Language. These suggestions are worth remembering and should be followed if you want to see an improvement in the clarity and quality of your writing. —Never use a long word where a short one will do. —If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. —Never use the passive where you can use the active. —Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent to use instead. —A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  Rule 1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s. Follow this rule regardless of the final consonant. These usages are correct: Charles’s friend Burns’s poems the witch’s malice This is the rule followed by the U.S. Government Printing Office and the Oxford University Press. Exceptions are the possessive of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is; the possessive Jesus’; and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake.
  Rule 2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. For example: red, white, and blue gold, silver, or copper He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.
  Rule 3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. A parenthetic expression is a clause or phrase that is inserted within another clause or phrase. In a sense, it interrupts the flow of the first expression; usually, it can be omitted and you will still have a complete sentence, as, The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
  Rule 4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing a coordinate clause. ✘ The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed. ✘ The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape. Sentences of this type, isolated from their context, may seem to be in need of rewriting. They make sense when we reach the comma, and the second clause has the appearance of an afterthought. Further, the conjunction and is the least specific of connectives. Used between independent clauses, it indicates only that a relation exists between them without defining that relation. In the example above, the relation is that of cause and result. The two sentences might be rewritten: ☺ As the early records of the city have disappeared, the story of its first years cannot be reconstructed. ☺ Although the situation is perilous, there is still one chance of escape.
  Rule 5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma. If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are written to form a compound sentence, the proper punctuation mark is a semicolon. ☺ Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures. ☺ It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.
  Rule 6. Do not break sentences in two. In other words, do not use periods for commas. While it is acceptable to break a compound sentence into two shorter elements, where both form complete sentences, doing so often results in choppy wording. Especially avoid breaking sentences in two when one part or the other does not form a complete sentence,
  Rule 7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If you want to make it refer to the woman, you must recast the sentence: He saw a woman accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.
  Rule 8. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Write one paragraph to each topic. A paragraph expresses a complete thought.
  The beginning of each paragraph is a signal to the reader that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached.
  Rule 9. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Begin each paragraph with a topic sentence and end it in conformity with the beginning, although certain exceptions apply. Again, the object is to help the reader gain clarity and understanding of what you are writing. The practice recommended here enables readers to discover the purpose of each paragraph as they begin to read it, and to retain this purpose in mind as they end it. For this reason, the most useful kind of paragraph, particularly in exposition and argument, is that in which: (a) the topic sentence comes at or near the beginning; (b) the succeeding sentences explain, establish, or develop the statement made in the topic sentence; and (c) the final sentence either emphasizes the thought of the topic sentence or states some important consequence.
  Rule 10. Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive:
  Rule 11. Put statements in positive form. Make definite assertions in your writing. Avoid bland, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.
  Rule 12. Use definite, specific, concrete language. Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.
  Rule 13. Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
  Rule 14. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
An unskilled writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of such sentences, using as connectives and, but, so, and less frequently who, which, when, where, and while, these last in non-restrictive senses
  Rule 15. Express coordinate ideas in similar form. This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions of similar content and function should be outwardly similar.
  ✘ Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed. ☺ Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method. The first version gives the impression that the writer is undecided or timid; he seems unable or afraid to choose one form of expression and hold to it. The second version shows that the writer has at least decided on the point he wants to make, and he makes it.
  ✘ The French, the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese ☺ The French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese ✘ In spring, summer, or in winter ☺ In spring, summer, or winter ☺ In spring, in summer, or in winter
  Correlative expressions (both, and; not, but; not only, but also; either, or; first, second, third; and the like) should be followed by the same grammatical construction, that is, virtually, by the same part of speech.
  Rule 16. Keep related words together. The position of words in a sentence is the principal means of showing their relationship. You must therefore try to bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.
  Rule 17. In summaries, keep to one tense. In summarizing the action of a drama, you should always use the present tense. In summarizing a poem, story, or novel, you should preferably use the present, though you may use the past if you prefer. If the summary is in the present tense, antecedent action should be expressed by the perfect; if in the past, by the past perfect.
  Rule 18. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. The proper place in a sentence for the word, or group of words, that you want to make most prominent is usually the end.
  The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.
  Rule 19. “First Word” Capitalization Rules.
  Capitalize the first word of every quotation. Mark demanded, “Stop the car! Now!”
  If the first word of a sentence is a trademark, an acronym, or a proper noun usually written in lower case, capitalize it.
  Capitalize the first word of every numbered clause, regardless of how the clauses are structured in the paragraph. Consider the two examples below, where the first presents the clauses as a series of paragraphs, and the second illustrates numbered clauses in running text: The defendant claims that: (1) He did not attack the man; (2) The witness appeared drunk at the time; (3) In fact, the witness himself attacked the man. The witness asserts under oath that: (1) He saw the man attacked; (2) He saw him fall; (3) He saw the defendant flee.
  Capitalize the names of political parties, religious denominations, and schools of thought.
  Rule 21. Capitalize Days, Months, and Historic Eras.
Capitalize words that refer to significant events or periods in human history. Industrial Revolution Civil War Middle Ages Stone Age The Great Flood Magna Carta Vietnam War Ice Age
  Rule 22. When to Capitalize Landmarks. Do not capitalize words such as river, mountain, sea, etc., when they are used as common nouns. But when used with an adjective or adjunct to specify a particular location, they become proper names and should be capitalized.
  Rule 23. When to Capitalize the Names of Seasons. Capitalize the names of the four seasons when they are used as proper nouns, in a title or headline, and when used as a “personified” noun (see Rule 24). Otherwise, do not capitalize the names of the four seasons. These usages are correct: The summer was hot, the fall breezy, the winter frigid. The Winter of my discontent Will you be taking summer classes? Cindy enjoys baking pies and cakes in the winter.
  Rule 24. Capitalize “Personified” Nouns. “Personification” is a concept in which inanimate objects are represented as having life and action. A personified noun is a proper noun and should be capitalized. Clear-eyed Day broke on the horizon. The Redwood said to the Oak, “I am taller than you.”
  Rule 25. Capitalize Cardinal Points (Sometimes). The cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) are common nouns and not capitalized. But when used to distinguish a specific location or region, they are proper nouns and should be capitalized.
  Rule 26. Capitalize Most Words in Titles. Capitalize the first word and the last word of the title of a book, film, song, or other creative work. Capitalize all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions. Capitalize prepositions only if they are used adverbially or adjectivally; otherwise, write prepositions lower case. Likewise, lower case articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions, and the word to in an infinitive, such as “How to Play the Violin.”
  Rule 27. When to Capitalize Roman Numerals. Capitalize Roman numerals when they are part of a proper name, a title, or a chapter heading.
  Rule 28. Capitalize Trademarks and Service Marks. Trademarks and service marks are proper nouns and should be capitalized.
  Rule 29. When to Capitalize Relative Words. When relative (or family) words such as mother, father, brother, sister, and uncle are used as common nouns, do not capitalize these words;
  When a relative word is used with a person’s name, and no possessive pronoun is used, capitalize the word. I called Uncle Joe to ask for a loan, but he refused.
  When a relative word is preceded by a possessive pronoun (my, her, his, your, their), it is a common noun, so write it in lowercase, even if it is used with a person’s name. This rule conforms to Chicago Style; other style guides may offer different advice. I called my uncle Joe to ask for a loan, but he refused.
  Capitalize relative words when those words are substituted in place of a person’s name. You might not agree, but Father knows best. Her father Jake works hard to earn a living.
  Rule 30. Capitalize Some Religious Titles and Terms. Pronouns that refer to the Supreme Being should be written in lowercase, according to Chicago Style. But the Chicago Style website notes that some religious writers and readers may be offended by this practice. The best approach is to follow “house rules” of the publisher, or consider the audience and write pronouns that refer to the Supreme Being in uppercase or lowercase as appropriate for that particular audience.
  Capitalize proper nouns that refer to the Bible or to the scriptures of other religions, and to any parts of those texts.
  Rule 31. When to Capitalize Political Titles. Capitalize the titles of honorable, state, and political offices when used as part of a formal title. Otherwise, write these titles as common nouns and use lowercase. President Donald Trump toured the factory.
  Rule 32. When to Capitalize Educational Titles. Do not capitalize the words freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior unless used at the beginning of a sentence or in a headline. When referring to students, upper-division is preferred to upper-class. Capitalize the names of colleges and universities. But the terms “university” and “college” when used alone usually are common nouns and should not be capitalized.
  Capitalize the names of college and university departments, and official bodies of educational organizations. The School of Law is also called the law school.
  Capitalize educational degrees only when they directly precede or follow a person’s name; otherwise, use lowercase (Chicago Style); or capitalize all degree names no matter where they appear (AP Style). Chicago Manual of Style: Elizabeth earned a master of science degree from Harvard University.
  AP Style: Elizabeth earned a Master of Science degree from Harvard University.
  Rule 33. When to Capitalize Job Titles. The rules for capitalizing job titles can be confusing. Generally, use lowercase for titles when preceded by an article (a/an or the); and all titles used as common nouns. Mr. Carlson is the editorial director for the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Carlson, Editorial Director of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at the luncheon.
  Do not capitalize generic occupational descriptions, regardless of whether they precede or follow the person’s name. When writer Steven Clark met with publisher Jules Martinique, they decided to launch a new imprint devoted to cook books, led by editor Joe Wilson.
  When a person has an unusually long title, write the title after the name and in lowercase to avoid excessive capitalization that would look odd and be difficult to read.
  A sentence containing an expression in parenthesis should be punctuated, outside of the marks of parenthesis, exactly as if the expression in parenthesis were absent. The expression within is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point. I went to his house yesterday (my third attempt to see him), but he had left town. He declares (and why should we doubt his good faith?) that he is now certain of success.
  Formal quotations cited as documentary evidence are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks. The provision of the Constitution is: “No tax or duty shall be laid on articles exported from any state.” Quotations of an entire line (or more) of verse, are begun on a fresh line and centered, but need not be enclosed in quotation marks. Wordsworth’s enthusiasm for the Revolution was at first unbounded: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven! Quotations introduced by that are regarded as indirect discourse; do not enclose these passages in quotation marks. ✘ Keats declares that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” ☺ Keats declares that beauty is truth, truth beauty.
  Grammar is concerned with how words are used, and how words are combined into sentences and paragraphs. Style refers to an additional set of rules writers and editors should follow to achieve consistency in the construction and tone of their writing. Simply put, grammar rules will help you to write sentences that make sense, and style rules will help you to turn those sentences into a polished final draft. Style is a term in writing that encompasses a wide variety of issues beyond grammar, such as questions on word usage, capitalization, how to abbreviate, how to write numbers and dates in running text, and many other quandaries. Style rules fill in the gray areas that exist because grammar rules tend to be broad. For instance, it might be possible to write a sentence in a dozen ways, and all might be grammatically correct; but one construction might be clearer and flow better than the rest. Style rules help to ensure that your writing expresses your ideas in the clearest and most effective manner possible.
  Dozens of writing style guides are available today. The most widely used, Chicago Manual of Style, is the bible of editors working in American English fiction genres, and some nonfiction editors. AP Stylebook is used by journalists and others who write and edit for news organizations and websites. APA Style and MLA Style are often used by college students for writing term papers and essays. In the United Kingdom, Oxford Style Guide is widely consulted for grammar questions.
  You can start a sentence with a conjunction. For more than century, grammarians have taught that you should never start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Seven of these conjunctions exist in English, and they are: and, but, so, yet, or, for, and nor. This prohibition may have developed out of grammar instructors wanting to help students avoid writing sentence fragments. But times have changed, and most style guides now advise that it is okay to start a sentence with a conjunction, as long as the practice is not overused.
  You can split infinitives. An infinitive is a verb form that almost always begins with the word “to” and ends with a simple verb. For example: to walk, to speak, to ask. A split infinitive is a short phrase in which a word, typically an adverb, is inserted between the “to” and the verb, as, to boldly go.
  Consider your audience. Identify your intended audience before you start writing. Think about what your readers want to know about your topic, or what they will expect from your story that will make it an interesting or enjoyable read. Take into account their level of reading comprehension, the depth of their interest, and what is customary in your particular genre. Avoid the pitfall of “dumbing down” your writing to reach a wider audience.
  Generally, avoid writing long paragraphs, and especially avoid the convoluted and verbose styles commonly found in early twentieth-century literature. Large blocks of text are daunting to readers and suggest that what is to come will be boring or difficult to grasp. Shorter paragraphs are more inviting and easier to digest. Try to limit paragraphs to four or five sentences, or about 100-125 words. A paragraph should discuss one main idea, not several. An idea might require twenty sentences to properly develop, but that doesn’t mean that you should write a rambling, twenty-sentence paragraph that spans an entire page. Look for logical places where you can break a large block of text into several paragraphs.
  Long or wordy conditions (such as the italicized words in the example below) should be placed after the main clause to improve clarity. In this way, you focus the reader’s attention on the major idea you are stating in the sentence, and then you explain the condition. ✘ If you own more than fifty acres and cultivate grapes, you are subject to water rationing. ☺ You are subject to water rationing if you own more than 50 acres and cultivate grapes.
  Contrary to the popular notion, which is not a more elegant way to say that. The two words are not interchangeable, and the choice is not a matter of style—following this rule is a right-or-wrong choice. Which is a pronoun that introduces nonessential information. Use a comma before a which clause. If a comma won’t work, then you should be using that. ➦ Reminder: f you delete the words in a which clause, the remaining words should still form a full sentence. That is a pronoun used to introduce essential information. Do not use a comma before that.
  Adjectives and adverbs are closely related in their forms and use, but do not confuse the two. When you want to modify a noun or pronoun, use an adjective. When you want to modify a verb, an adjective, or an adverb, use an adverb. George smells bad. ➦ Bad is an adjective describing George; that is, George needs a bath. George smells badly. ➦ Badly is an adverb describing smells; that is, George’s nose does not work well.

About Journeyman

A global macro analyst with over four years experience in the financial market, the author began his career as an equity analyst before transitioning to macro research focusing on Emerging Markets at a well-known independent research firm. He read voraciously, spending most of his free time following The Economist magazine and reading topics on finance and self-improvement. When off duty, he works part-time for Getty Images, taking pictures from all over the globe. To date, he has over 1200 pictures over 35 countries being sold through the company.
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